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Being There – The Criterion Collection (Blu-ray Review)

The sublime comedy Being There has finally made its way to The Criterion Collection, further cementing its status as a true classic. The film received multiple awards and other acclaim, including a Best Actor nomination for star Peter Sellers and a Best Supporting Actor win for Melvyn Douglas. This praise was well-earned, as the Hal Ashby-directed film presented a wonderful satirical tale of how an anxious and delusional society could fall prey to a simple man’s charms. Previous releases have kept this film from falling out of the public conscious, but this Criterion Blu-ray easily provides the ultimate experience in enjoying the film and providing further insight in regards to its legacy.

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Film: 

Being There tells the story of Chance (Sellers), a middle-aged man living in the home of a wealthy old man in Washington D.C. Chance essentially has the mind of a child, having lived his entire life inside this home, with television as his only connection to the outside world and source of knowledge. When the homeowner dies, Chance is forced to leave his home and enter the real world.

This goes better than expected, as Chance soon finds himself being taken in by Ben Rand (Douglas), a dying business mogul, and his wife, Eve (Shirley MacLaine). Mistaken for some sort of wise sage, Chance’s odd interactions with Rand are taken as political and economic advice deemed fit for the President (Jack Warden), whom Rand is a confidant for. All of this manages to impress everyone around Chance, while he simply wants to watch television.

The film is built entirely around Sellers’ wonderful performance. As a comedic legend, the actor could aptly deliver performances on any spectrum. While his Inspector Clouseau performances in The Pink Panther movies were demonstrations of his broader side, the portrayal of Chance shows off something much more subdued. It’s not just a level of deadpan that suited him well in two of the three characters he performed as in Dr. Strangelove (which also earned him an Oscar nomination). There’s something more in how Sellers captures the spirit of a simple mind, but never makes it feel patronizing to the type of people he is portraying.

Ashby certainly knew what he had in Sellers, as he took this story, based on a novel by Jerry Kosinski, and did all he could to best bring out the joys of this character interacting with random folk and important people in the world. In pushing this character to his limits by simply inserting him in more and more absurd situations, the film is able to conclude with an image so profound that it makes you go back to question the nature of Chance and appreciate Sellers’ work even more, given the newly realized level of nuance.

That’s getting ahead of what else works here though. For all that Sellers accomplishes, it is also good to note just how game the supporting cast is in lowering themselves to look foolish from our perspectives. Being There creates much delight in the audience by letting them sit on the outside of things and see how a different understanding of the situation makes for great comedy. That doesn’t stop Douglas from being quite good in his part though. The confidence he sees in Chance makes for comical situations, but having his character be on the verge of death still allows for proper introspection.

The rest of the cast is allowed to play things a bit looser. Warden is a lot of fun as the President, who is basically shaken by what Chance brings to the table. Various people working for Rand, including Richard Dysart as his physician, have their moments to feel puzzled yet calm by Chance’s presence. MacLaine is a bit trickier. She’s certainly good in her role, someone who seems to admire Chance for his curious nature. It’s just a bit of a shame that Being There’s only real misstep is how far they want to take the foolishness of other’s reactions to Chance with her character.

Shot at the end of the 70s, the film feels like a product of its time, though it is not surprising to seem oddly prescient for today. There’s clearly a little role reversal (and vastly different mindsets), were one to really put that all together, but the film does have interesting ideas about what society feels it needs. Chance has learned it all from television and as an adult white man presenting himself respectfully enough; it is comical to see him rise so easily from nothing to someone deemed important. Given the depiction of culture and how it is that people take in information, the film finds plenty in its underlying themes that speak to American culture, without turning the film into a sermon.

Not hurting at all is the presentation. Ashby may be regarded as a New Wave director, which holds up when you look at some of his other films including Harold and Maude and Shampoo, but there is an interesting balance between classical filmmaking and the experimentation that made up these decades of films. You can see that in the photography by the great Caleb Deschanel, who matches the opulence of Rand’s estate with the griminess of 70s Washington. The media-obsessed world of the society at large is underlined by fine editing choices and a soundtrack perfectly emphasizing Chance’s arrival into his new world. Rather than play to convention, the film hits certain dramatic requirements and then flips them on their head.

I was happy to discover Being There for the first time in college. Having already been a fan of Sellers, seeing what was essentially the product of years of hard work resulting in this magnificently calculated performance made this film all the more rewarding for me. It was getting through to the end that I was able to fully acknowledge what a genius piece of filmmaking this really was. The film feels of its time, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see many still find interesting connections to today’s culture when viewing it now. Regardless, Being There is a superb film that chronicles a man’s success based around how sincerely he presents himself.


Video:


Encoding
: MPEG-4 AVC

Resolution: 1080p

Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1

Clarity/Detail: Being There arrives on Blu-ray with a new, restored 4K digital transfer, supervised by cinematographer Caleb Deschanel. As you can expect from Criterion, this latest release is a huge improvement over previous releases. This is seen in all areas, including the level of detail that can now be spotted on your own TV in regards to the mansion and other fine locations that make up a majority of the film’s settings. Other touches, such as the costume design, are also better reflected thanks to the visual richness seen here.

Depth: This new transfer also does a great job of removing the flatness seen in previous releases. While not overtly showy, there is now a lot more to take in here in terms of the level of definition and dimensionality.

Black Levels: Black levels are mostly solid. There’s a bit of softness when looking at something like Chance’s tuxedo is certain scenes, but nothing that really takes away from the intended picture.

Color Reproduction: Once again, the new transfer helps bring out the many colors found in this film. Everything is presented rather normally and the color scheme reflects the somewhat melancholy tone of the film, but one can’t say there are not moments that really pop.

Flesh Tones: Much like the detail seen in the production design, there is a lot to admire in the facial textures seen throughout.

Noise/Artifacts: With an expected level of grain that has been appropriately cleaned up, there is nothing in terms of problematic noise to be found.

Audio:

Audio Format(s): English LPCM 1.0

Subtitles: English SDH

Dynamics: While the film only presents a standard mono audio track (this is a simple character study from the 70s after all), it is in no way unimpressive. The score by Johnny Mandel is key to that fact, as you get to admire a lot in how the film is put together on an auditory level through what he adds to key scenes.

Low Frequency Extension: There is really nothing for the LFE channel to have to work with.

Surround Sound Presentation: Balance on this lossless track is handled quite well as far as blending the ambient noises well with everything else going on. It’s not an audio track full of complications, but it still sounds great.

Dialogue Reproduction: Everyone is heard loud and clear.

Extras:

While no one came in to put together a commentary, there is plenty of material here that feels standard for Criterion, including a new documentary that explores the making of the film, some archival interviews and plenty more.

Features Include:

  • The Making of Being There (HD, 48:00) – A new documentary that goes over the film’s construction, Ashby’s methods and more. Lots of good interviews to be heard.
  • Deleted Scenes and Outtakes (HD, 10:00) – A couple of deleted scenes and outtakes, as mentioned, as well as an alternate ending.
  • Hal Ashby at the AFI (HD, 33:00) – Audio excerpts from a 1980 AFI seminar.
  • Author Jerzy Kosinski and Dick Cavett (SD, 20:00) – An archival episode of The Dick Cavett Show, where the author discusses his approach to adapting his novel for the film.
  • Peter Sellers (SD, 23:00) – Two archival interviews featuring Sellers on NBC’s Today show in 1980 and The Don Lake Show, also in 1980.
  • Trailer and TV Spots (HD, 3:00)
  • Promo Reel (HD, 3:00) – Worth checking out this promo piece with Ashby and Sellers.
  • Plus: An essay by critic Mark Harris – This is the leaflet that accompanies all Criterion releases. It’s quite well-done and informative, as usual.

Summary:

I was incredibly excited to learn Being There would be coming to Criterion and this release did not disappoint. The film is excellent in all regards, with another great Sellers performance at its core. Add to that a spectacular video/audio presentation and plenty of extras to satisfy all those curious about the film’s production and you have another stellar release from Criterion. This is one worth seeking out, as it’s a fine older comedy that has a little more going on to push it to a whole new level.

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Writer/Reviewer, Film Lover, Podcaster, Video Game Player, Comic Book Reader, Disc Golfer & a Lefty. There are too many films, TV, books, etc. for me to list as favorites, but I can assure that the amount film knowledge within my noggin is ridiculous, though I am always open to learning more. You can follow me on Twitter @AaronsPS4, see what else I am up to at TheCodeIsZeek.com & check out my podcast, Out Now with Aaron and Abe, on iTunes.

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